Sep 112007

In thinking about how cool Robert Quine was, and in searching for a killer live clip of Richard Hell and the Voidoids, I was reminded of how weak Richard Hell’s career was beside that first Voidoids album. Oh, the second album has a couple of good tracks, especially a cover of Them’s “I Can Only Give You Everything”, but the truth is Hell got a ton of mileage out of a couple of good ideas, a great Look, and lord knows how many Sugar Daddies and Sugar Mommas.

For starters, who funded the making of this film, entitled – with prescience of the man’s severely limited supply of greatness – Blank Generation? I don’t recall it having been released back in the days when I was young enough to have run out to see it. Have any of you seen this? Check out the plot synopsis from IMDB:

Nada, a beautiful French journalist on assignment in New York, records the life and work of an up and coming punk rock star, Billy. Soon she enters into a volatile relationship with him and must decide whether to continue with it, or return to her lover, a fellow journalist trying to track down the elusive Andy Warhol.

By the time I was 20 I didn’t need any more proof that Hell was one multi-untalented dude.

I knew Hell had put out some books of poetry, but poetry’s typically not my bag. No offense to any hard-working poets out there, but Jewel and Jimmy Stewart wrote books of poetry too. It’s probably pretty easy to get a book of poetry published if you’re gap-toothed with nice jugs or one of America’s greatest actors. Hell was pretty much of the gap-toothed/great jugs variety, so I may have overlooked a truly telented American poet. If so, my apologies.

I do recall seeing Hell in his post-lone great work prime in some other movie, Smithereens. in which he played pretty much himself as a lame boyfriend to a nice Jewish girl who was trying to be a punk. Or something like that. I think there were a lot of empowerment issues being explored. I just remember wishing I’d found the girl more appealing to watch while probably earning her NYU acting degree.^

Years passed, and every once in a while I’d try to check in to see if Hell would be doing anything new. He must have had a nice little income from whatever it was he was doing while seeming to do nothing. Finally there was that Dim Stars project, in which Hell, Robert Quine, some Sonic Youth members, and others delivered…a brief EP! An EP that stunk, mind you. They may have done something else down the road, but by this time I wasn’t checking back any time soon.

Finally, about 5 or 6 years ago I finally got to hear the early Televison demos that Brian Eno recorded, when Hell was still in the band. They were terrible, primarily because Hell couldn’t play bass. What was he, someone’s girlfriend? I know he had those nice, full lips and chiseled cheekbones, but the guy was proto-bad! When we think of brilliant moves that our favorite artists made in their careers, we should rank the dumping of Richard Hell from Television high among the accomplishments of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd.

^Note: Director Susan Seidelman would go on to direct Desparately Seeking Susan, with both Madonna and Rosanna Arquette, two women who did a much better job of holding my interest. Hell had a small role in this film. Consider Seidelman one of his Sugar Mommas.


  25 Responses to “Richard Hell: Multi-untalented?”

  1. He’s a pretty good writer, actually; it’s not cheap fame writing. And the books came out with real publishers of literature, not cash-in presses. The work is a little too Rimbaud/Patti Smith/poetry meets the rock and roll underground/alcoholic on the edge/ to finally be crucial, but he can actually write.

    And at several points in time I met briefly ex-girlfriends of his who know poetry people I know. Holy shit. I mean, I get it, NYC rock stars have hot girlfriends. But really, this was something.

  2. Mr. Moderator

    I’m going to take your word for it on the poetry front, Mwall. I will apologize to Hell, the Poet, appropriately.

    How ’bout the way that woman films him in the Blank Generation movie? She looks really into it. At least I’m really into watching her film him.

  3. BigSteve

    The name of the director of Blank Generation (Ulli Lommel) rang a bell. He had appeared in a handful of Fassbinder films in the decade before BG. Nowadays he makes his living as a horror director, his most recent films being Black Dahlia, The Raven, and Curse of the Zodiac.

    I may have more to say about Hell tomorrow, but I think his main talent was as a conceptualist, not as a musician, or even a writer. He created a sensibility, opening up an area for others to work in. Like a lot of pioneers, he didn’t reap the rewards for being out in front.

    I love that first Voidoids record too, but there are some good tracks scattered among the stuff he did before retiring, especially the song Time.

  4. dbuskirk

    Sometimes Mr. Mod I feel like you’ve tapped in to the government surveillance program to snoop on new ways to offend my sensibilities. While Hell was sadly unprolific in his career, I love every cut on BLANK GENERATION and DESTINY STREET and they were among the most obsessed-over records of my late high school years, especially for their lyrics (kind of a “tougher” take on Dylan, who I was also ga-ga over). Throw in all those guitar fireworks (Naux and Ivan Julien are way under-rated besides Quine and the whole thing appealed to my teen-age Hendrix fixation)and you have records so good that Hell existed on their reps ever since.

    His writing is hit or miss for me, but some things are pretty great; I have a beautiful chatbook that is photographs of the sky with Hell re-writing an original poems ten or twelve ways. His art? I can think of no exhibition meant to offend the Moderators sensibilities more than his collection of penis self-renderings.

    That “who’s Ulli Lommel?” business was extra-grating as well,like a “who’s this Kit Lambert?” would hurt your tender lobes. I love BLANK GENERATION which only further fascinated recently for all that German location footage and besides, ow much well-shot color Voidoids performance footage do you think their is out there anyway? Aren’t you glad “Blow-Up” exists for the Yardbirds footage at least?

    As someone who spent their twenties similarly obsessed with both foreign film and horror films Lommel was the meeting point, an important Fassbinder-collaborator (as a actor and assistant director) who actually made a mainstream horror film, THE BOGEYMAN. “A supernatural HALLOWEEN knock-off with Fassbinder riffs”? I would have been in mid-twenties heaven, I assure you. Lommel’s TENDERNESS OF THE WOLF is a pretty wild retelling of Fritz Lang’s M with a bunch of the Fassbinder actors and is a must for fans of Fassbinder.

    Further entice me by the fact that he’s a buddy of Warhol’s, giving his who video horror phase a semi-homage to Warhol the filmmaker and now you’ve assembled the perfect Frankenstein of “Outsider Artist” who I will someday delve through his catalog to separate that wheat from the chafe (if global warming doesn’t get us first).

    np The Dirty Projectors – RISE ABOVE

  5. Mr. Moderator

    Townsman dbuskirk wrote:

    His art? I can think of no exhibition meant to offend the Moderators sensibilities more than his collection of penis self-renderings.

    I wasn’t aware of that work. Sounds right up the man’s alley. I’m now reminded of my first assignment EVER in publishing: I had to prepare the artwork for a urology book, which meant for starters, I had to cut out about 200 sketches of penises, carefully cutting around all the lines and then pasting the penises onto big sheets of pink paper that were part of the FPO (“for placement only”) process. I’m telling you, it was terrifying work. I’ve never held a pair of scissors near a penis since.

    My friend, you know how much I appreciate your take on the arts, and I now feel a mix of shame and delight in having touches so many nerves with one post. It’s funny that you mention Blow-Up, which those Blank Generation clips had me thinking about. I didn’t like that movie (surprise surprise?), but I did like seeing that version of The Yardbirds – and the colors were great, as are the colors in these clips.

    I did notice you were not offended by my shots at Seidelman’s Smithereens. Am I at least on the mark regarding that film’s lack of delivery?

  6. 2000 Man

    How can the guy that was the main reason behind Blank Generation be untalented? That’s one of the best albums ever. Maybe he was a lazy guy, or maybe he got bored with the music “industry.” But that’s pretty different from untalented. There’s an awful lot of people in the world that would have loved to have made something like Blank Generation, and a whole lot more that tried and never came close.

  7. Mod’s got ambition, or lack thereof, mixed up with talent. What else is new? You said it, 2K!

  8. BigSteve

    Doing background research, I found two interesting tidbits:

    Hell’s archive of his manuscripts, tapes, correspondence (written and email), journals, and other documents of his life was purchased for $50,000 by New York University’s Fales library in 2003.

    Hell was married to Scandal’s Patty Smyth for two years, 1985-86, and they have a daughter, Ruby. (Smyth is now married to former tennis star John McEnroe.)

  9. Mr. Moderator

    Point taken, KingEd, but I think talent’s worth little without a degree of ambition. I know lots of “Mike Cosgrove” types whose talent isn’t worth a hill of beans thanks to whatever it is that keeps them from using it more often. Plus, I feel that what BigSteve said about Hell being more of a conceptualist has merit. Having great concepts is not quite the same as having great talent. Even if I’m wrong, I’m not sure that he had more than one great concept. More power to him! Meanwhile, which university is buying up Robert Quine’s unpublished sticky notes?

  10. BigSteve

    I think it’s an open question whether Hell lacked ambition or whether heroin forced him to choose between a glamorous early death and a longer but downsized career. You could make the argument that the sensibility he pioneered led inevitably towards heroin and/or death, and god knows that stage is littered with bodies. Somehow Hell made it through, and he seems content with a solitary literary life on the periphery of the marketplace.

  11. Mr. Moderator

    It’s level-headed responses like yours, BigSteve, that make me glad I posed this thread in the form of a question. I’m still considering the answer myself.

  12. I know this is a rock discussion list, but I’m interested in this side take on Blow-Up, which I think is a really intriguing film.

    It does seem that for a variety of reasons, Hell stretched himself a little thin; he’s done a lot of this and that, some of it excellent, some of it mediocre. His importance is finally going to rest on those two Voidoid records, and the rest contains some intriguing footnotes. I do wonder at times how many fine albums are expected out of someone. It seems to me that since the end of the 70s, a lot of bands I would consider truly excellent never made more than two or three first rate albums.

  13. sammymaudlin

    I think talent’s worth little without a degree of ambition.

    Please elaborate on your definition of ambition and how this might pertain to someone like Syd Barret.

  14. BigSteve

    Blow Up might not be in my all-time movie top ten (the Antonioni slot wold have to go to L’Avventura), but it might be in my top 20. I think it’s great, and I don’t even really like the Yardbirds, so that’s not why.

  15. Mr. Moderator

    Sammy, at worse the application to Syd Barrett is “N/A.” The guy had serious problems in short time, although even after he left Pink Floyd he turned out two more great albums. Before he suffered his difficulties he learned to play his instrument, he wrote songs with a unique structure, etc. I think he had plenty of ambition and talent, while he could use them in tandem.

    Mwall, I guess one of the things that annoys me about the Hell legacy is not so much the fact that he turned out no more than 1.5 great albums but that he turned out no more than, what 2.5 albums total? It’s all cool if he’s got better things to do, but as much as I loved that first album I would have expected a little more effort in the ensuing years.

  16. sammymaudlin

    You’ll fix my


    but evade the question? We deserve a clarification.

  17. sammymaudlin

    Isn’t 1.5 “great” albums more than most? Is it that you think he had more in him? Without having a calculator handy I’d bet his great:suck ratio is better than Dylan’s.

  18. It has often been said that Blow Up was the one Antonioni film that people could like, or at least understand. The weighty philosophical inquiries of his past film are slimmed down to: if you take a broken guitar neck out of the theater and into the streets, does it still mean anything? And a similar question about points of reference occurs in the last scene.

    Blow Up over time seems to me less interesting. Sure it looks cool, but there’s less ther than meets the eye. And it has spawned countless imitators who try to mimic the film’s detached, arty look.

    Nonetheless, I prefer this film to its predecessors, just as I prefer Richard Hell to the art-punks who came after.

  19. Mr. Moderator

    Isn’t 1.5 “great” albums more than most? Is it that you think he had more in him?

    I’m sorry I haven’t been clear about this. It’s not the fact that he only churned out 1.5 great albums but the fact that he’s only tried to make one more album’s worth of material beyond that. It’s not like he’s dead. Whenever I’ve checked in on his work before those Voidoids albums or after, including his film work, I’ve gotten little to nothing back. That German woman working the camera in the clip for Blank Generation might be his second-best contribution to the arts!

    What this comes down to is a feeling that I’ve been robbed of his worst, or more accurately, of his failures. I am fairly comfortable following the failed ambitions of artists who have hit the highest of highs for me. Lou Reed, if it hasn’t been clear, is Example A. He has had the balls and commitment to carry on and offer something of his humanity in his art for all these years. Every now and then he has done something majestic, yet even when he’s less than great, I’ve gotten a “touch” from him.

    There may be a hundred great reasons why Hell has never touched me since part way through Destiny Street – and it may be by his own choosing. Some people walk away, and that’s cool. Some people get sick. Cool. I’m simply disappointed that I didn’t get more out of a guy who really turned me on when I first heard his music in high school. Have I expressed my disappointment in less-than-constructive ways? Certainly.

  20. dbuskirk

    Yeah, I didn’t get the impression you ever liked him. Maybe making a couple albums and dropping out is the smartest way of dying-before-you-get-old. Scraping by on meager residuals, foreign magazine writing and drawing your penis doesn’t seem necessarily less dignified then humping your bass amp into the Khyber once a year as “Richard Hell and the New Voidoids”.

    I hear he lives in the same rent-controlled apartment that’s on the DESTINY STREET cover.

    As for SMITHEREENS I was always so-so on it, although I think it’s neat to have annoying main characters in films, and Susan Berman is really annoying. I thought Hell was convincing as himself (and I’ve known people who can’t even achieve that feat off camera). Years after seeing it I became friends with Berman’s brother, Steve Barton of the 80’s S.F. band Translator. She later married Des McAnuff, the producer of TOMMY broadway play. That’s a lot of stay rock trivia to revolve around one woman. Her mom was in TWILIGHT ZONEs too.


  21. “Isn’t 1.5 “great” albums more than most? Is it that you think he had more in him? Without having a calculator handy I’d bet his great:suck ratio is better than Dylan’s.”

    I’m bemused by the implications of this statement.

    Somewhere in the history of baseball, I’m sure there’s someone who had only one at-bat, got a hit, and never got to the plate again. Should we be comparing this person to Ty Cobb?

  22. saturnismine

    sammy, where ya goin’ with this barrett thing?

  23. sammymaudlin

    Mod spoke of talent without ambition. Depending on how you define “ambition”, Syd may or may not have had it, right? By his solo albums he certainly wasn’t commercially ambitious and likely wasn’t all that commercially motivated in the Floyd either. He was likely artistically ambitious though and that was what I was getting at.

    And ambition, artistic or otherwise, doesn’t necessarily mean prolific.

    We don’t know how much of Syd’s illness led to his decision to not create music anymore. But regardless, I don’t think its fair to condemn an artist for stopping. By Mod’s calculation this artist was 1.5 for 2.5. Pretty darn great, even by RTH standards.

    As for Ty Cobb- Maybe that was a low blow because Dylan has put out so much, but I for one wish as hell that he hadn’t.

    Maybe a better comparison would be a band like Big Dipper. I know that the Mod digs this band (as do I thanks to him) but I don’t hear him bemoaning their limited catalog.

  24. Mr. Moderator

    Townsman Al’s Ty Cobb comparison stands!

    The Big Dipper comparison does not work, Sammy. Big Dipper fought the good fight and moved on. No films in which they paraded around as themselves, pretending to get filmed by hot German models. Honestly, I’m tired of seeming to take potshots at Richard Hell. I think that first album is great. As is too often the case, I will go to sleep tonight wondering why almost no one else felt like I did after trying to keep up with this guy over the years. It’s like I went to a restaurant, had a fantastic meal, and then had nothing but slop each time I went back.

    Tomorrow night I’m going to post something that everyone can get behind. I’m going to feel like the most popular guy in the Halls of Rock. Keep your palms moisturized. You’re gonna be slapping me five for days to come!

  25. mockcarr

    Fuck ambition. Well, I would say that if I had any gumption.

Lost Password?

twitter facebook youtube